How to Cook Like Julia Child: A Play in Two Acts

ACT I

[Marie is in her kitchen, assembling ingredients and reviewing the appropriate pages of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to prepare the Custard Apple Tart. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major streams from Pandora.]

Marie: I have reviewed the recipe, purchased the ingredients, and assembled all the things. I even poured a beer to enjoy as I cook. I’m ready!IMG_4430.jpg

Marie: [Reads aloud Step 1 of the Custard Apple Tart Recipe on page 637] Use the sweet short paste on page 633 for the pastry shell. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Marie: [Preheats oven. Turns to page 633.]

Marie: [The recipe lists “Amounts Needed” as follows:

“For an 8- to 9-inch shell, proportions for 1 ½ cups flour.”

“For a 10- to 11-inch shell, proportions for 2 cups flour.”

IMG_4422.jpgThen, “Proportions for 1 cup flour” with the actual recipe to follow.]

Marie: …

Marie: [Asking a friend] Does this mean that I’m to adjust the recipe by adding .5 for everything since I have a 9-inch pan?

Friend: This is nuts. I have no idea. I’ll read it some more.

Friend:I believe you adjust the recipe amounts to 1.5. So you’ll use 1 cup flour and 1.5 cups sugar.

Marie: This is why I don’t use Julia’s recipes more. They make me crazy. I adjust everything, right, not just the flour?

Friend: Adjust fats by .5 also. Urgh!

Marie:I can’t do math! Damn you, Julia!

Friend:Blahhh – why butter AND shortening?

Marie: 1 ½ T shortening x .5 is…2.25 T shortening?

Friend: 2 T and 1 tsp. Unless you have a quarter tablespoon measure. A teaspoon is about a third of a tablespoon.

Marie: Don’t round. Must be precise. I need the math.

Friend: Urk. 2 T plus .75 tsp.

Marie: Fuck. I got 2.25 T. Is that the same thing?

Lisa: I think so?

Marie: All I can think of is my remedial math teacher in college intoning, “fractions never go away.”

Lisa: I hate that teacher! But, he is right.

Marie: [Mixes dough. Does baking things.] Motherf…the dough has to chill in the freezer for an hour. Guess I’ll turn the oven off.

Friend: Oh, fer…

Marie: I’m assuming that the “freezing compartment of the refrigerator” is the freezer, yes?

Friend: Hahahahaha!

Marie: Or, the dough can be refrigerated for two hours or overnight. That’s right, two hours, or tomorrow. There is no in-between, apparently.

Marie: [reviews instructions for making the dough] It says to “place the flour in the bowl, mix in the sugar and salt, and then proceed to make the dough …” Make the dough? That’s the instruction? It’s like being on the technical challenge of the Great British Baking Show.

Marie: [Looks up instructions for making the dough on page 140]

Marie: [Reads aloud the instructions for making the dough in a food processor. She is not making this up.]

Measure the dry ingredients into the bowl. Quarter the chilled sticks of butter lengthwise and cut crosswise into 3/8 inch pieces; add to the flour along with the chilled shortening. Flick the machine on and off 4 or 5 times, then measure out a scant half-cup of iced water. Turn the machine on and pour it all in at once; immediately flick the machine on and off….

Marie: [Stops reading, because that is insane.]

Marie: [Reviews how to make dough with her hands.]

Place the dough on a lightly floured pastry board. With the heel of one hand, not the palm which is too warm, rapidly press the pastry by two-spoonful bits down on the board and away from you…

Marie: F this, I’m just going to knead the dough.

Marie: [Reads instructions}

“Then press the dough firmly into a roughly shaped ball. It should just hold together and be pliable but not sticky.”

Marie: What if it IS sticky, Julia? What, then?IMG_4423.jpg

Marie: [Rolls the sticky dough into a ball, wraps it in waxed paper as directed, and places it on a plate in the refrigerator for two hours, but not overnight, having not felt confident on the meaning of the “freezing compartment of the refrigerator.”]

Marie: [Finishes beer and wonders what she got herself into.]

[End of scene, End of Act I]

 

ACT II

[After a walk outdoors to rethink her culinary choices, Marie is back in the kitchen, attempting to roll out what she hopes will pass for dough. The only sound is that of her despair.]

[Six hours later…]

Marie: I have a tart! It’s pretty and it tastes good. Also, I am never doing this again.

[End of scene, End of Act II, End of Play]

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Imposter Syndrome

Recently, I’ve been talking with some fellow professionals about imposter syndrome. This is where you never feel like you’re quite good enough, but work on faking it till you’re making it. It’s when you assume a certain role yet never quite feel qualified, and wonder when other people will figure it out.

The more I talk about it with others, the more I realize that we all experience this phenomenon.

Other people look at me, and think that because I can put “PhD” after my name, I must really know a lot of stuff.

Well, I am pretty smart, but I was smart before I earned the degree, and plenty of people who don’t have those letters after their names are pretty smart as well.

The degree alone is not an indication of intelligence, or success, or the ability to own a room, or, let’s be real, an indication of ability to obtain gainful employment. The job market is tough out there, especially for people with “PhD” after their name.

So, what is it, then?

I really think the degree is a “to each, her own,” kind of situation.

For me, I have learned that those letters after my name are an indication of my stubbornness, my personal drive, and my simple yet profound inability to tolerate bullshit.

There’s a story that Neil Gaiman tells about having a conversation with a polite, older gentleman at a party. The gentleman gestures to the others in the room – people who are accomplished at Doing Great Things – and says that he doesn’t belong there. After all, he explains, he just went where he was told.

Well, says Neil Gaiman in response, you were the first man to walk on the moon. That has to count for something.

That’s right; even Neil Armstrong has moments of experiencing imposter syndrome, despite his incredible achievements in aviation.

Much like Neil Armstrong, I feel the need to reduce my accomplishments to simply following a checklist. To earn a doctorate in Literature, do these things. Enroll in classes, check. Earn high grades in these classes, check. Take and pass qualifying oral and written exams, check. And so forth.

Because I simply followed the checklist, I often feel I need to apologize for the degree sometimes, or to hide it, as if to say,  “I know this doesn’t make me better than anyone else. And I’m just as self-confident without it. Please don’t think I’m a jerk.”

Much like Neil Armstrong, I simply followed the path I was pointed down and checked things off my list. And yet, I realize now that one of the singular benefits I earned from working on this degree is that I was willing to raise hell when I was prevented from accomplishing some of the things on said list.

One of those things involved earning X credits of coursework in order to qualify for graduation. I moved through my program, earning said credits (check). I asked for, and received, approval to take several classes at the college where I earned my master’s degree (check). After successful completion of these classes, I had official transcripts sent to my doctoral program advisor (check), who confirmed receipt.

Then, he retired and left the university. Years passed. I had completed all other items on the checklist and was ready to graduate.

Then, with mere hours to go before close of business on the last possible day that I could have all materials submitted to the graduate school to qualify for graduation, I received an email saying they had never received my transcript for the classes I took years before. I had an email from the previous graduate coordinator confirming receipt of them, but no one cared. The mistake was on the part of the university, yet I was going to suffer the consequences.

I…did not handle it well. This came after many other obstacles that were so unacceptable I still cannot believe this was my experience.

I ended up on the phone with my sister, clock ticking, trying to figure out what to do.

My panic lasted about twelve seconds before my resolve kicked in. There was no way I was letting this happen. I was not going down without a fight.

My sister called a courier while I called the registrar of my former school. I explained the situation, and the registrar graciously agreed to expedite an official copy of my transcript, bless her beating, beautiful heart.

The courier picked up the transcript, and I met him at my university. We walked into the graduate office together, with less than an hour to spare before close of business.

Everyone froze. At the time, I didn’t realize it, but in hindsight I see that they must have all thought I was serving the dean with legal papers.

Instead, I simply wanted the dean’s signature to acknowledge receipt of the transcript in time for me to graduate that term. There had already been several other delays for reasons outside my control, and another six-month delay to graduation based on an error on the part of the university was not something I was willing to accept.

An office staffer tried to get the courier to let him sign for it. I refused to allow it. I insisted that the dean step out of his office to sign for it himself.

More silence. They tried again to get me to acquiesce; I stood my ground.

Finally, the dean came out. He signed the paper on the clipboard, and the currier went away. He reviewed the transcript and said that it was sufficient, though expressed surprise that I had gone to such lengths to get it to him.

And, in the end, it turned out that I had one class too many and didn’t need to go through all of this, but the people reviewing my file were inept and incompetent. There were a lot of instances of incompetence and poor process management along my way toward completing that checklist. But after all of the work I had put in dealing with this nonsense, I was determined to finish what I started.

Maybe I’m not such an imposter after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Can Learn a Lot From a Grocery Store

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is visit local grocery stores. These spaces are often the best way to learn about the similarities and differences of local culture.

In France, the wine selection goes on for days and days. Sometimes there is even a wine cellar. The wine is all dirt cheap (think $2-3 a bottle for something that would easily cost $25-30 in the States), and very good.

The French also love smoked salmon, apparently, because never in my life have I seen such a selection of that particular item.

DSC_2066
I wasn’t kidding about the smoked salmon.

In Italy, what’s not on the shelves is interesting: peanut butter. While you may find familiar labels (Nivea, Dove, Nestle) on the shelves, peanut butter of any brand has not infiltrated Italian culture.

In Iceland, I found a variety of dried fish, candy that tasted like menthol, and skeins of wool right there near the cash registers.

In Japan, a four-pack of peaches cost $20. A lot of fruit has to be imported, so the prices reflect that.

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I wasn’t kidding about the menthol candy, either.

One thing I have noticed in particular is that in European countries, eggs are found on a non-refrigerated shelf. I was happy to have the opportunity to explore why when invited to write an article about it for moneysmartfamily.com. The short version as to why some cultures refrigerate their eggs and some do not lies in how we approach managing salmonella. The chickens, and the eggs, are essentially the same.

I hope you enjoy reading about the cultural differences of egg storage. Please share the differences you have found with grocery store food when traveling!

Borrowing Money for School: An Exercise in Confusion and Mild Panic

I am lucky. I grew up knowing that my parents would pay for my college education. This was not easy for them. I have two sisters, and my parents were committed to sending each of us to college. They worked, and saved, and budgeted, and at times fought over saving and budgeting.

When I wanted to transfer from my affordable and respectable state institution to a fancy and expensive private school, my dad sat me down and explained the reality of that choice. I didn’t fully understand the impact of taking on a lot of student loan debt at that time, but I did understand that student loan debt, or any kind of debt, was Serious Business.

I paid attention. I made it through my bachelor’s degree with zero debt. I worked part time during the school year, and full time during the summers. Just as much as the fact of my going to college was always a given, so was the fact that if I wanted to attend graduate school, I would have to find a way to pay for it myself.

So, I did. I worked full time for a number of years, and when I found a program that I liked, at a school that was close enough to get to in the evenings after work, I applied.

I paid for it in part by taking advantage of my employer’s 50% tuition reimbursement deal, which they honored for a few terms until they realized that someone was actually using that benefit and cut off the funds. I also had some savings, and a small inheritance, and so paid cash for the rest. By spreading the classes out, one per term (except for the summers, when I inexplicably doubled up in a concentrated amount of time; I do not recommend this), I earned my master’s degree without a penny of debt.

Then, I went back to school for my doctorate. I did not need to borrow money to cover living expenses, but I did borrow to cover tuition. Having never borrowed money for school before, I took it upon myself to go to the financial aid office in person to make sure that everything was squared away.

I had already filled out the FAFSA forms. I had taken the FAFSA quiz that has questions along the lines of, “you know you have to pay this back, right?” The government offered me the full amount of unsubsidized loans: $12,500/year.

The catch was that I didn’t need $12,500 a year. Tuition was in the neighborhood of $4-6,000 per year, because 1) it was an affordable state school, and 2) I was only attending part-time.

I couldn’t figure out how to decline any part of the excess money, so I walked into the financial aid office of my school and introduced myself. I said I was new to that school, and to the student loan process. I asked if someone could please tell me how to borrow the money that I do need, and decline the money that I don’t.

Seems straightforward, right?

The lady behind the desk handed me a form and said to fill it out. There was a box at the bottom for me to handwrite my explanation as to what money I wanted to decline. This seemed rather unofficial to me, but after all, these are the people who should know, right?

I filled out the form. I again explained my intention. I was told that I had done what I needed to do, and to have a nice day.

Huh, I thought. That was easy enough.

About a month later, I received a statement from the U.S. Department of Education. The statement showed that I had borrowed the full amount offered, and that interest was accruing.

I went back to the financial aid office. I again explained my situation. I was again told that I had followed the procedure to only borrow X dollars and decline the rest.

“Except, the Federal Government is charging me interest,” I explained. The financial aid staff was confused. I had followed the procedure and they had logged my visit in the computer. If it said in the computer that I had done what I was supposed to do, then we were all set.

“Except, the Federal Government is charging me interest,” I said again.

I refused to leave the office until we got this figured out. It was an uncomfortable situation. The financial aid staff kept insisting my account was set up properly. I kept showing them the loan statement showing that it wasn’t.

Eventually, defeated, I left the office, confused, but unable to get anywhere.

Then, I received an email saying that if I did not settle my account within three business days, I would be dropped from my schedule.

Excuse me? What’s this now? Had I not followed the procedure? Did I not go, in person, twice, to speak to financial aid professionals to ensure that my account was set up properly?

Did I not fill out the form that I was told twice was all I needed to do? Did the financial aid staff not check the computer and see that my account was set up properly? And as the Federal Government was charging me interest, clearly something was paid to someone. If I didn’t have the money, and the University didn’t have the money, who had the money?  What on earth was going on?

I went back to the financial aid office. Again, I had to insist that my account was not, in fact, set up properly, only now I had the added component of the threat of being dropped from my classes, and I had no idea why.

I insisted on sitting down with a supervisor in the financial aid office. She checked the computer. She said what everyone else kept saying: my account showed that I had set everything up and so clearly had not borrowed the extra money. I showed her the loan statement from the federal government showing that the government had loaned me the full amount.

I showed her the email saying I was about to be dropped from my classes and now had only had two business days to work out what I had thought I had worked out weeks ago by going, in person, twice, to the financial aid office, explaining my situation, and asking for help.

Here’s where I fast forward to the conclusion: It turns out that when the Federal Government issues student loan checks, it sends the checks to the school. Then, students apparently, as if by magic or telepathy, have to know to show up at the Bursar’s office at a particular time of year to claim the check.

To this day, I have no idea how students learn they have to do this. I never got a letter or an email or a phone call. I went to the financial aid office in person more than once, each time explaining that I had no idea how the process works and asking for help.

Yet, somehow I was magically supposed to know I had to stand in a line at a particular office at a particular time, accept a live check and either sign for it and keep the money or sign it back over to the university, at which time they credit my account with enough of the funds to settle my bill, and return the rest to Uncle Sam.

This process left me speechless. No wonder so many so students rack up debt like someone is handing them free money. Because, someone is handing them free money.

It’s a good thing I was a woman of a certain age, who was raised to be extremely conservative with debt. There was no way I was going to borrow one penny more than I absolutely needed to cover my tuition. But would the situation have been different were I an 18-year-old freshman who didn’t grow up with my dad teaching me the importance of saving early and often?

I was acutely aware of the impact of debt and compounding interest, but I know that not everyone is. I can see the dollar signs adding up as one uninformed college student after another is handed a five-figure check with their name on it, knowing they don’t have to figure out how to pay it back for years.

To this day, I do not understand how students are supposed to figure out this process. Apparently, they do. That line at the bursar’s office was long. Does every student figure this out the same way that I did, through confusion and mild panic?

There were a lot of people involved in the financial aid office (and, not incidentally, the Dean’s office, when I called to ask why I was about to be dropped from my classes) who treated me as though I was doing something wrong. The woman in the Dean’s office was flat-out rude, acting as though my situation was entirely of my own delinquency for not paying my bills. Even when I explained the situation, still she was condescending and rude, as if I was lying about my circumstances.

If walking into the financial aid office and asking point blank for help understanding the process is not enough for a student to become educated, what exactly are students supposed to do? Circumstances like these make me angry at the growing student debt crisis in our country, because it’s clear that there is information that needs to be shared, yet the people in the best positions to share it are not doing so.

 

 

 

 

Women and Student Loan Debt

A new article I wrote went live today. Please check it out and leave a comment on the site!

This was an interesting piece to write. When I was first assigned the topic, I had no idea how I would get 2,000 words out of it. Then, I started researching, asking around, and paying attention.

It turns out that student loan debt is actually a women’s issue. I had no idea. Did you?